With summer in Japan come a few regular certainties. We know it’s going to be hot and it’s going to be humid. If you’re an English teacher, your students will almost certainly forget most of what you taught them during the summer break. Many of your Japanese friends will suddenly announce they are off on holiday to places like the US, Europe and Australia and you’ll wonder just where exactly they get the time and money to do such things!
However, one of the most reassuring certainties of summer in Japan is the annual celebrations, parties and fireworks that come with the various summer festivals.
Hanabi or fireworks during summer
Photo:Kentaro Ohno on FlickrFestivals are a big deal here in Japan, with entire city centres sometimes coming to standstill at the height of the festivities.
From small town affairs such as The Hagoromo Festival to the Kobe City Summer festival, I have taken in a wide variety of locally and internationally famous festivals and events in the 3 and a half years since I came to call Osaka my home.
It’s been interesting to be sure.
However, until recently there was one festival that had eluded my attention, and it is perhaps the most famous festival of them all, if you happen to be from Osaka anyway!
The locals call it the Tenjin Matsuri (天神祭).
Photo: Midori on Wikimedia CommonsThe Tenjin Matsuri takes place every year at the end of July and coincides with the beginning of the school holidays. For many families in Osaka, celebrating the Tenjin Matsuri is about so much more than just fireworks, street food and cold beer, it is an annual rite that signifies the true beginning of the summer season.
The festival itself takes place over two days, but, much in the same spirit as the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, for several days leading up to the festival the whole Osaka becomes immersed in something of a carnival atmosphere.
Street food vendors, known colloquially as “yattai” sell all manner of delicious, though perhaps not especially healthy snacks.
Photo: Tomumurasan on FlickrI especially recommend the grilled squid, the “american dog”, which my friends in the US would probably know more commonly as a corn dog, namely a hot dog sausage coated with a sweet, corn syrup based batter. Heart disease on a plate, but, at the same time, absolutely delicious.
Special mention however must go to couple of delicacies that are authentic Osaka originals. First up, Takoyaki. In short, if you have visited Osaka and you’ve never had Takoyaki, there’s, frankly, something wrong with you. These tasty dough balls consisting of pieces of octopus covered in a sweet, dumpling-like coating and covered in a with sweet sauce, similar to what one would find on the equally delicious Katsudon, and topped off with mayonnaise and flakes of dried fish. This really is the best street food you’ll find in Japan.
In as much as English people love their fish and chips, Scots love a good curry and Americans love a hamburger, in busy times like street festivals or a late night train ride home from work, when you need a short sharp infusion of calories, that both tastes good and sates your hunger, you won’t go far wrong with Takoyaki.
Secondly, is the world famous Okonomiyaki. This pancake like dish tastes great but can get a bit messy. So if you are planning to “eat it on the go” then be sure you have plenty of wet wipes handy for afterwards.
Takoyaki in the making.
Photo: Isaac Bordas on FlickrBesides the great food, another great aspect to the festival atmosphere is the fashion that accompanies it. As a single man, I have to admit that the sight of thousands of beautiful young Japanese women, all smiling, as they wander down the street dressed in their yukata (basically a lighter, less expensive summer variant of a kimono) is guaranteed to set the heart racing.
So, what about the festival itself?
Well, the Tenjin Matsuri isn’t just one of Japan’s biggest festivals, it’s also one of its oldest.
The earliest recorded Tenjin Matsuri was in the year 951 AD, which makes it older than most European festivals and about 800 years older than the USA itself!
Since then, the festival and its accompanying events have been based around the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine, which was formally consecrated just two years earlier in 949 AD.
Initially, the festival was only supposed to be for local Shinto Priests and their parishioners. But the festival proved so popular that it wasn’t long before the general populous also wanted a piece of the action.
Omikoshi - Tenjin Matsuri
It’s heartening to see that this tradition continues to this day with a wide variety of people of different ages and backgrounds coming together to make this festival the spectacle it is today.
The main events kick off at around 3pm on the festival’s second day, with a parade around the city, beginning at the Tenmangu Shrine, and ending at the riverbank near the Tenmabashi district.
However, when the parade ends, this is but the beginning of the second phase of the event.
In a gargantuan show of strength and teamwork, several of the floats, displays and Mikoshi (mini shrines) from the afternoon parade are mounted onto boats and paraded up and down the river.
The events culminate in a spectacular 2 hour fireworks show. A number of boats gather in the Sakuranomiya district and unleash their rockets for the thousands of spectators gathered on both sides of the riverbank.
It’s then a mad dash to beat the crowd and get the train home!
It’s funny actually, because the crowd is probably in the tens of thousands and comparable to many of the large scale soccer games I used to cover back in Scotland. Yet there was no excessive drunkenness, no aggression and certainly no disorder.
It is this that sets aside the Japanese from other cultures. Even with 40 or 50,000 of them crammed into a few narrow city streets, they still have the courtesy and kindness to look out for each other.
The festivals may give Japan international attention, but it is the people who make this the great country it is.